Laws for „U-Spaces“: More airspace for commercial drones

At an aviation trade fair in Cologne, Deutsche Telekom’s business and the surveillance of commercial drone flights are also on the agenda

As in Hamburg, small civilian drones could soon be conducting test flights within a so-called „U-Space“ airspace in the port of Rotterdam. The „U“, stands for urban. The EU-funded projects aim to coordinate airspaces near the ground where commercial flights of quadrocopters or other, small drones take place with other helicopters or planes flying through. A „U-Space“ is only a few hundred metres high – exactly how high, the EU still wants to determine. This is the purpose of the flights in Hamburg and Rotterdam, which will initially take place on a test basis for up to two years.

Drones are also a topic at the „European Rotors“ aviation trade fair in Cologne, which started yesterday. They are increasingly being used by rescue and disaster control authorities, for example to search for missing persons, inspect energy plants or now also to transport medicines. However, the drone industry believes that the potential is far from being fully exploited. Drone operators are often faced with the problem that drones get in each other’s way or with other aircraft.

Projects like „U-Space“ are therefore intended to develop routines for ascent permission and conflict avoidance with other aircraft. This is because in urban airspaces – unlike in civil and military aviation – there are no air traffic controllers. Therefore, small drones have so far only been allowed to fly in the vicinity of the pilots. In the „U-Spaces“, this will also be possible beyond visual range. However, this also goes hand in hand with more surveillance. Each drone is equipped with a SIM card that communicates its position and course. The responsible service provider authorises the flights and gives the drone pilots instructions on where they are allowed to fly.

So a growing market is emerging here, in which telecommunications service providers can also earn money. Deutsche Telekom recognised this early on, acting as a „U-Space“ provider at the port of Hamburg. For this purpose, the company has bought the Frankfurt-based company Droniq, which, however, is also partly owned by the German Air Traffic Control (Deutsche Flugsicherung).

According to estimates by Achim Friedl of the Association for Unmanned Aviation in German-speaking countries, the first permanent „U-Spaces“ could begin in autumn 2023. The lobbyist is a Daniel Düsentrieb of the drone industry and also has no problem with surveillance. Until his retirement, Friedl was head of division at the Ministry of the Interior for technology at the Federal Police and the riot police forces of the federal states.

However, controlled drone operations as part of the „U-Spaces“ are not yet profitable, Friedl criticises. Droniq CEO Jan-Eric Putze also points this out to the dpa news agency, which is why he would like to see the largest possible airspaces as „U-Spaces“. This would make their use more attractive and increase the demand for flights, says Putze.

The Quantum Systems company from Oberpfaffenhofen in Bavaria, which sells vertical take-off fixed-wing drones to Deutsche Bahn, among others, but also to the military in Ukraine, is also in the starting blocks. „A successful introduction of U-Spaces will boost the drone industry,“ company CEO Florian Seibel tells dpa.

However, the manufacturers and operators have to contend with reservations among the population, who have a problem with drones buzzing around en masse, and not only in industrial areas. „The drone is not there to secretly photograph the neighbour, but to improve life with all its many facets,“ promotes Droniq CEO Putze.

To this end, the legislation is now to be amended accordingly. The EU Commission has already laid down in a framework regulation that out-of-sight photography will be allowed from the end of January. Exactly how this is done is left up to the member states. The German Federal Ministry of Transport therefore also wants to present a proposal for a „U-Space“ law next year.

Image: SESAR JU/ EU Comission.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.

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